Archived Posts from this Category
Archived Posts from this Category
One of the long running jokes among the (these days: masochistic) fans who follow Italian soccer is that — at least according to the Italian sports media — teams tend to go from “crisis” to “crisis” several times in a given season. If a top-caliber team doesn’t win for two straight matches, sono in crisi (or “they are in crisis”). It’s as if the Italian media have a mission to create melodrama.
We think about that sometimes when we hear about the new coffee crisis: global warming, or climate change if you prefer. If you weren’t keeping score, the last coffee crisis was rooted in the collapse of coffee prices. With the 1989 dismantling of what was essentially a cartel among coffee producing nations, mass market coffee greens went from a high of about $1.50/lb to an all-time low of $.46/lb in 2003 — a pricing collapse catalyzed by the influx of mass-produced, low-grade Vietnamese robusta. It was this crisis that gave root to Fair Trade and other economic initiatives — to stave off the inequities of the coffee trade from spreading poverty and putting coffee growers out of business.
However, today coffee has a new crisis. From papers [pdf, 622k] presented at the 2007 SCAA conference to some of the key talks at the conference last weekend (not to mention posts here going back to 2006), there’s been a lot of chatter lately about how the forces of climate change are reducing crop yields, eradicating available land use for coffee production, and extending the breeding grounds of harmful coffee plant pests. This month’s CoffeeTalk cover story comes with the apocalyptic headline, “Can this really be the end?” and the quote:
Nearly all of the specialty coffees in Latin America are sold and shipped. There simply are no quality Latin coffees left except Brazilian and those are going fast.
Something is seriously going on. But is it a bit premature to declare the end of coffee? There’s real danger in being false alarmist.
Whether it is quality coffee or anchovies off the coast of Chile, one of the biggest safeguards for a product’s survival is a group of consumers willing to pay a decent price for the good stuff. So when we read lamentations that coffee is going to disappear, and that coffee consumers are going to flee for cheaper energy drinks, we get the sense that these are primarily concerns for the lower grade coffees we generally avoid anyway.
Yesterday we attended a Meet the Producers event hosted by the Epicenter Cafe and Barefoot Coffee Roasters and got to test this theory. There we talked with Barefoot’s “Chief Espresso Officer,” Andy Newbom, to ask his opinion on the subject — in addition to the opinions of visiting coffee growers from El Salvador and Guatemala.
Sure enough, they all confirmed our suspicions. As long as there are consumers willing to pay for good coffee, there will be a market for good coffee. It does leave concerns about supplies at the mid-range and low end. But the best way to ensure there will always be supplies of good coffee is to keep demanding it and paying a premium for it.
Saturday’s Chicago Tribune published a pretty good piece on Intelligentsia CEO, Doug Zell:
Intelligentsia Coffee’s CEO talks beans – chicagotribune.com.
While Doug gets a little loopy (our opinion) in abusing the ever-popular wine analogy for coffee — e.g., espousing such shoehorned ideas as coffee pairings — he’s been a pioneer and leader in areas such as:
The article also notes the roots of his coffee experience at the Bay Area’s Peet’s and Spinelli chains (the latter since bought out by Tully’s), Intelligentsia’s successes at barista competitions, and working with area restaurateurs.
However, on that last note, the article also quotes Rick Bayless — the “Frontera Grill/Topolobampo chef/cookbook author/TV personality.” While he is a genuinely talented perfectionist himself, and we love his food, his restaurants pull some of the weakest shots of Intelligentsia we’ve ever had.
Just when you think the profession of the coffee “middleman” was on its way out in this era of the Internet, in come a number of entrepreneurs trying to reintroduce them. What we’re talking about are consumer retailers that intermediate the sale of roasted coffee — with examples that include Citizen Bean, GoCoffeeGo (see Man Seeking Coffee’s recent review), and ROASTe.
These e-retailers provide online storefronts for consumers to review, order, and purchase roasted coffees from a variety of specialty coffee roasters. Virtually all of the participating roasters already have their own online storefronts with support for direct ordering. So the value of these e-retailers is supposedly in the discovery of new roasters and the convenience of buying your roasted coffee from one Web site. Or so the PR machines behind them have stated in our stuffed e-mail inboxes over the past few months.
In some ways, this reflects the ambitions of entrepreneurs who wish to shoehorn the specialty wine merchant business model on coffee’s ever-popular wine analogy. Other elements seem like attempts at coffee’s wine-of-the-month club. In either case, a major flaw in this model is that coffee, unlike wine, goes stale immediately after roasting. To address this, these e-retailers have established on-demand roasting relationships with their roasters.
Another major challenge with this business model concerns pricing. Adding a middleman always costs more money than a system without one, as they have to make expenses and payroll on top of all the other costs in the supply chain. It’s for this reason that coffee middlemen have been extremely unpopular in recent years. They’ve been demonized by the Fair Trade movement as unnecessary leeches, siphoning money from the coffee trade supply chain that should otherwise be going to coffee farmers.
In fact, the entire financial premise behind Fair Trade and Direct Trade coffee is to get rid of the middlemen. So who is paying for these e-retailers? Right now, it seems to be an arrangement akin to that of travel agents before the age of the Internet: the seller picks up the additional costs as a marketing and distribution expense, and no additional costs are passed on to the consumer. But how long will this last once the consumer novelty wears off?
It’s indirect trade: buying coffee through these roasted coffee brokers effectively cuts into the coffee roaster’s capacity to pay top dollar to their coffee farmers.
The travel agent analogy to these e-retailers is fitting, as there’s little you can do with them that you cannot already do directly, and more cheaply (total supply chain cost-wise), over the Internet. Like travel agents in their heyday, the value of a middleman comes when there is a lack of consumer information and/or a lack of direct public access to the suppliers. The Internet has rendered both as non-issues when buying roasted coffee. And we all know what happened to travel agents. So unless the individual roasters themselves completely screw up their business at sales and distribution, a middleman will have a very limited opportunity to improve upon these relationships.
For a comparison, over the years I have purchased green coffee beans (for home roasting) from distributors such as Sweet Maria’s and The Coffee Project. Why? For one, I simply cannot find supplies down the street. It also helps that a Web site like Sweet Maria’s provides a lot of flavor profile information and roasting recommendations. But if individual farms I knew and trusted started selling directly over the Web, that would change things.
Does this mean that these e-tailers don’t provide a valuable service customers want? Absolutely not. A number of them already have vocal, loyal customers. There may turn out to be a sustainable long-term market for one or two of these middlemen for a limited set of customers. But given the economic and disintermediation forces of the Internet, we foresee a pretty ugly commercial bloodbath on the horizon for a number of them. Travel agents did give way to travel-aggregating Web sites, but then we already had an established need for travel agents well before the Web came along.
Last week the Christian Science Monitor published an article highlighting the economic pressures on Latin America’s organic coffee farmers: Organic coffee: Why Latin America’s farmers are abandoning it / The Christian Science Monitor – CSMonitor.com.
Just as Fair Trade designed their program to attract coffee growers through the promise of financial incentives, once they made initial certification investments, organic certification has also been promoted as a way for them to earn higher margins for their crops. However, over the past few years — while Wal-Mart became the nation’s largest buyer of Fair Trade/organic decaffeinated coffee — the premiums paid for organic coffee have shrunk.
The economics of growing organic coffee in Latin America are now causing some farmers to “switch sides”. We’ve long been rather ambivalent about Fair Trade’s potential to live up to many of its good intentions. Although you could argue that “organic” is just another flawed solution attempted through the magic wand of certification, its aims and goals always seemed much more realistic and achievable.
Opening last month on the site of a former Briazz prepared-foods (lunch, primarily) chain shop, this corner café isn’t much of a leap from its predecessor. They serve sandwiches, soups, and salads as before — but with an emphasis on cocoa and espresso.
The store seeps causes from its signage: Fair Trade coffee and cocoa, Clover organic milk, etc. Yet that’s the required price of entry for doing business in SF these days: unless your front door bleeds feel-good causes, you have not justified why you’ve chosen to offend the public by opening a for-profit business in town. Even if said causes are more platitude-driven, high-gloss window dressing than substance (
energy-inefficient polluting recycling or coal-burning electric cars, anyone?).
In addition to a wall of prepared foods and a central counter with a small, two-group E91 Faema Diplomat machine, there’s seating along the corner windows and some outdoor searing along Sutter St. at café tables. Deep in its recesses are the free Internet junkies on laptops, banished to the corner with power cords dangling from the ceiling.
In making a shot from Mr. Espresso beans, the barista is slow, careful, and deliberate. The resulting cup has a mottled, textured, medium-brown crema of average thickness, but it congeals rather richly. The shots also run on the short side, served in black ACF cups. Despite all that, it is relatively lacking in flavor. There’s no real “punch” to the shot; it has a tepid, mellow flavor of mild spices. Somehow they manage to serve a shot with a proper size and a promising crema that doesn’t quite live up to your expectations.
Read the review of Bread & Cocoa.
As Starbucks‘ future looks ever bleaker and bleaker, CEO Howard Schultz continues his maniacal lever-pulling atop Starbucks’ runaway corporate bulldozer. After shedding themselves of music, movies, and books, they’ve tried everything from an online suggestion box and free coffee promotions to membership cards to less expensive (“daily”) roasts and smoothies. Mr. Schultz’s latest lever pull du jour seems to be coffee ethics, as this week Starbucks announced plans to source Fair Trade beans for all the espresso drinks they serve in the UK by the end of 2009: All Starbucks’ coffee to be Fairtrade – News, Food & Drink – The Independent.
This is hardly a new angle. Nearly two years ago, we wrote about McDonald’s announcement that they would source Rainforest Alliance coffee in the UK to ethically one-up Starbucks. But it was only less than a month ago that Starbucks announced that they were committed to doubling their sourcing of Fair Trade beans — albeit from less than 4% of their total coffee purchases to a whopping 6%. That makes this week’s announcement for the UK market appear to be a rapid escalation in retail coffee’s ethics wars.
The British already appear to be viewing Starbucks’ “100% Fair Trade” announcement with a surprising degree of suspicion and cynicism. And although Starbucks stated that they ultimately want to switch to 100% Fair Trade beans around the world, they would be far from the first of the major chains to do so in America. Tully’s Coffee, for example, switched to 100% Fair Trade beans over a year ago. Looking at Tully’s recent earnings statements, the move clearly hasn’t hurt Tully’s growth. But it’s hard to say if such a strategy will help pull Starbucks out of their retail funk, given that Tully’s is far from the only major coffee chain that is profiting this year while Starbucks ails.
The bigger question for us, as always, regards the legitimacy of Fair Trade and what Starbucks’ actions do to its public perception. Despite intentions, Fair Trade falls short of its goals on many levels — many of them publicized by Intelligentsia‘s rather public break-up with TransFair USA in 2006. An even bigger concern is how Fair Trade is being given an undeserved monopoly status on ethical sourcing. This issue was recently best described by Sam Mogannam, a good-friend-of-a-good-friend and owner of the Mission‘s Bi-Rite Market, at August’s “Building a Slow Food Nation” panel discussion (which was held at the the Commonwealth Club for Slow Food Nation ’08):
Anya [to Anya Fernald, Executive Director of Slow Food Nation '08], you were talking about labels: fair-trade, organic. As important as they are, those labels were designed for the big box stores — so when you walk into a supermarket and you see an organic or a fair-trade label, you have some sense of provenance, some sense of pedigree, for those products. But there are many products that don’t have a certified organic label on them that go way beyond what an organic grower does.
Today’s San Jose Mercury News ran a nice, local puff news piece today on the Di Ruocco family, of Mr. Espresso fame: Di Ruocco family crafts coffee with care – San Jose Mercury News.
The fluffy article documents some of the background behind Carlo Di Ruocco, who founded Mr. Espresso over 30 years ago because he couldn’t find a decent espresso to drink in the area. (We can sympathize: it was bad enough just a decade ago.) Mr. Di Ruocco’s Mr. Espresso also became a licensed Fair Trade Certified roaster in 1999 — or more than seven years before whiny college students, who now militantly insist upon Fair Trade, even heard of the stuff. (So there.)
We last met Mr. Di Ruocco at the Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity Coffee Presidia tasting — at his son Luigi’s Coffee Bar. It’s great seeing local legends still very active in the area’s coffee community.
To the uninitiated, CoffeeRatings.com might look more like a horse racing tip sheet than a coffee Web site. But there are very good reasons why we’ve gone through the effort to quantify things. Just look at the chaos that can ensue when you don’t follow a system nor a simple baseline set of evaluation criteria: The 21 Best Cups of Coffee in America – Digital City.
You may have forgotten about AOL ever since your computer could no longer accept their once-ubiquitous floppy disks, but they still exist. Digital City is the reheated leftovers of AOL’s stunted local directory efforts. Their article claims they “looked all over the country” for their coffee picks, but we really have to question how hard. After five years and over 600 reviews methodically scouring SF alone, we still admittedly have plenty of gaps in our review coverage.
Jack’s is no stranger to coffee accolades. They rated as the 2005 “Best Cup of Coffee” in NYC, according to New York Magazine. Of course, this is the same New York Magazine that admitted less than a year ago that they never before considered how to rank coffee bars. And as recently as 2002, New York Magazine claimed that the rather pedestrian espresso-peddler and 1990′s holdover, Espresso Madison (formerly at 33 East 68th Street), made the best espresso in NYC. Hence we liken them to the Grammy Awards: sometimes they get it right, but only about a decade after their picks became irrelevant.
However, our biggest suspicion surrounding Jack’s ranking on this AOL best-of list concerns Jack’s location: a 10-minute, three-city-block walk from AOL’s new Manhattan headquarters. In other words: AOL corporate HQ’s satellite meeting place and bathrooms. Let’s just say that when AOL merged with Time-Warner, it probably didn’t help their odds of winning a Pulitzer for investigative reporting.
Also on the list is New Orleans’ famous Cafe du Monde. OK, who doesn’t like strong coffee, beignets, people watching, and catching a glimpse of the #82 City Bus Named Desire? But why is one of the 21 best cups of coffee in America cut with chicory to historically keep the costs down? How much cheap Vietnamese robusta do we need to get on this list?
As if to one-up New York Magazine and prove that AOL, too, can be decades behind the times, San Francisco makes this list at #9 with that 1950′s institution, Caffé Trieste. Now we like Caffé Trieste — that isn’t in question. But why is a place that doesn’t even rank in San Francisco’s 21 best (it’s currently tied for #54 on CoffeeRatings.com) make the cut for the nation’s 21 best?
Stranger still was the only other SF entry in the list: at #14 is Haight-Ashbury’s Coffee to the People (currently tied for #278 on CoffeeRatings.com). AOL’s City Guide has oddly always been partial to this café, so one might presume they must have offices around the corner.
Sure, it’s organic and fair trade and all — but should that be the sole criteria upon which a “best cup of coffee in America” be judged? At Coffee to the People, you can buy politics. You can even drink politics. But when it comes to taste, let us assure you: politics tastes like flat, careless drip coffee with a scant crema trying to disguise itself as espresso. And that’s a cause we cannot support.
Digital City, what were you saying about “arbitrary” again?
It is quite a mouthful of nouns. But the key points are that Slow Food is a non-profit, its Foundation for Biodiversity is a countermeasure effort to the dwindling food product diversity in the world (e.g., today the American food supply is dependent on just 7% of the food product diversity that was once available to us in 1900 [thank you, Monsanto]), and Presidia are Slow Food groups that promote different local foods and traditions — such as coffee growing.
Monday’s event was a an educational and publicity affair among coffee professionals, showcasing some of Slow Food’s efforts to develop, enrich, and promote the coffee markets of the Huehuetenango Highland Coffee Presidium (Guatemala) and the Sierra Cafetalera Coffee Presidium (Dominican Republic). Working with local farmers and cooperatives, the Slow Food Foundation seeks to preserve the heritage of these unique crops — and elevate their quality for consumers and the quality of life for their farming communities.
While not a formal coffee cupping, French press samples were prepared to standard while representatives of the various cooperatives from the Dominican Republic and Guatemala spoke about their coffees with the help of a volunteer translator. Seeing and hearing from those who work at origin is a relatively rare experience in S.F. — and stories of life on a Guatemalan or Dominican Republic coffee farm are a humbling contrast to the criticism of “elitist food snobbery” that has often been levied against Slow Food Nation. (Between that and complaints that the $65 entrance fee to the Food Pavilions for this non-profit wasn’t an all-you-can-eat Sizzler proves that stupid people are everywhere.)
But if that doesn’t scream “elitist snob” enough for you, this Huehuetenango coffee is also roasted by prisoners at Torino, Italy’s Vallette prison through a social cooperative called Pausa Cafè. Coincidentally, last year we sampled this very same Pausa Cafè-roasted Huehuetenango coffee at Caffè Carpano in Torino’s Eataly.
Not only did some 60 coffee professionals get to enjoy conversation, coffee, and wine over a fine organic dinner prepared by chef Eskender Aseged of Radio Africa & Kitchen fame, but we were even supplied with sample greens of Huehuetenango Highland coffee. The green beans were an appropriate touch for this crowd (and fortunately I’m also a home roaster).
Included in a small media kit was a 25-minute DVD-video documentary of the Huehuetenango Highland Coffee Presidium, with its opening scene taking place in none other than Alba, Italy’s Caffè Calissano. The documentary was also set in Venice, Italy’s Caffè del Doge — whose Slow-Food-affiliated Huehuetenango San Pedro Necta single origin espresso we rated quite highly at their Palo Alto location two years ago.
I quickly learned that event chair Andrea Amato, who is in charge of the Latin American Presidia for the Slow Food Foundation, is also a big juventino — so we finished the evening with shots of limoncello and lamentations over Juventus’ last-minute falter in drawing 1-1 at Fiorentina on Sunday. Just the way they do it in Italy.
For a little background, we mentioned this event in a post last week. Given how it had been billed, we had hopes there would be elements of Torino’s Eataly, hopes of good discussions about the many insidious and harmful trade-offs we’ve made in modern society to heavily industrialize food production over the past 50 years (think Michael Pollan), and hopes there would be a lot of drinking of, and conversation about, good coffee. It delivered at least something on all counts.
But in the end, our feelings about the event are rather mixed. While it has achieved some of its goals, it totally missed the mark on others.
Take Slow Food itself. This event seems to have successfully developed a much greater awareness of Slow Food here. Yet the event seems to have done little to clue in many attendees, let alone most of the general public, what Slow Food is really about. If we had not previously immersed ourselves in the land of Slow Food’s birth, we’re not sure we would have come away from this event with any of the social and cultural understanding we developed in Italy.
Slow Food Nation has admirably tried to keep the message as simple as “good, clean, and fair.” It has exposed many consumers to the notion that good, clean, and fair aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive, and it has also done a very effective job at not merchandising itself. However, its events have been a bit chaotic and incongruous — seemingly espousing different or unclear themes in different places. Is it a foodie thing where people just gorge on different foods? Is it some green politics thing that just adds to the cacophony of causes out there?
Northern Californians always seem to find a way to botch up a good imported idea by hijacking it with our own local political biases and causes to make it into our own. From what we could tell at the events, some people thought Slow Food belonged to the “buy local” movement. Others thought it was just another elitist food thing in support of food snobbery and selling $25-a-pound turkeys. Even some of the people representing Slow Food U.S. were among the guilty: one of the speakers at the Civic Center Plaza yesterday told the audience that the event was more than just a Bay Area thing — implying as if the movement was invented here, oblivious of its Italian roots as a means of standing up to the clear-cutting of the American fast food and factory farming machines.
It’s in these areas that Slow Food Nation has, thus far, failed at its mission. Though to be fair, this is just a first step in the U.S. as an inaugural event.
Cause fatigue is at epidemic levels these days. Much of the world, and even the Bay Area, seems tired of being told what to do — and that whatever you have been doing is most assuredly wrong. So it’s no surprise that people respond with cynicism and defensiveness to things like Slow Food. Greenwashing is also rampant. I often joke to my wife that some day soon I expect to see a glossy, feel-good oil company magazine ad placement — informing me of how, in an effort to help combat the effects of global warming, ExxonMobil is using recycled petroleum products to provide drowning polar bears with water wings.
And the aforementioned food elitism argument against things like Slow Food is very real. At the Slow Food Nation farmers’ market in the Civic Center Plaza, we found organic strawberries going for $8 a pint (!). Meanwhile, at the regular Heart of the City Farmers’ Market, just across Larkin St. in the U.N. Plaza yesterday, we found certified organic strawberries at three pints for $7. How can a lay consumer not feel they are being gouged by elitists?
And yet, when it comes to Slow Food, the $8-a-pint organic strawberry argument is completely missing the point. Last May when I was in India, I read media stories on the Web about the rising costs of food and the developing U.S. recession. American mothers were lamenting that they could no longer afford to shop for organic and whole foods for their families. I read this while I was waist-deep in some of the most heartbreaking poverty on the planet. And yet, looking around, I noticed that virtually everyone in India eats organic food almost exclusively. Unless we’re prepared to call the destitute of the Indian subcontinent “elitist snobs,” what’s wrong with this picture?
There’s plenty of statistical debate about the causes of obesity and the reduction of life expectancy in the U.S. But we support the principles of Slow Food because, first of all, the food is often better than the alternative (and our factory farming lifestyle is the alternative — not the other way around). And because we are making ourselves sick as a society through reduced biodiversity, fish collapses, corn-dominated diets and other monocultures, a Farm Bill that rewards corporate farms for not producing anything, and unsustainable factory farming.
Slow Food dares suggest that knowing who produces what you eat, and how it is made, can lead to a better standard of living for both producer and consumer. It’s a system that, at least in Italy, creates potential levels for both quality and accountability that would be difficult to achieve otherwise.
A lot, actually.
We don’t believe we qualify as some of the city’s stereotypical green lemmings who support a prefab checklist of causes. For example, we’ve made no secret of the fact that we’ve never supported the Fair Trade system. But Direct Trade, on the other hand, is another story. In the Slow Food Nation message of “good, clean, and fair,” “good” comes first: it has to be about making a better product. Similarly, “good” is a key value and differentiator of Direct Trade, and it’s certainly a big reason why Intelligentsia buyer Geoff Watts dropped their Fair Trade affiliation two years ago in favor of their own Direct Trade route.
On Saturday we visited the Coffee Taste Pavilion at Slow Food Nation. The pavilion was split with attendees forming lines in two distinct areas: one for sampling a variety of espresso shots from a row of La Marzocco GB/5s, and the other for performing taste comparisons of brewed filter coffee. Behind these was a service area with Clover brewers and a lot of classic brown Nuova Point cups getting a wash for the next round.
Unlike the structure of, say, a barista competition, this was more an informal line-up of people who wanted to sample and learn about different coffees — with baristas and coffee professionals all too happy to enjoy and discuss it with them. Almost nothing was written down — to encourage conversation and to not give credit to any one coffee estate, roaster, café, or whatnot. Roughly the same approach was followed at all the other taste pavilions. While it avoided partiality and encouraged conversation, this was one area that differed dramatically from our Slow Food Italy experience — where restaurants will take a certain pride by meticulously listing all their purveyors for butter, flour, salt, etc., on the menus.
As a result of this approach, our notes were sketchy at best. But a few things stood out, including the very sweet Ritual Roasters‘ espresso of single origin Finca el Guayabo, Huila of Colombia. (My wife noted how neither sugar was required — nor, to be sheepish for her to notice, was it available.) Then there was the interesting, well-rounded, wet-processed (and vacuum-sealed 18 months prior!) single origin Yirgacheffe Konga Cooperative espresso from Ecco Caffè that curator Andrew Barnett walked us through.
Another highlight was a comparative tasting of filter brewed coffee with Edwin Martinez (mentioned in an SF Chronicle story yesterday). After sampling some Panamanian and Ethiopian coffees (details long since forgotten), I had noted how many of the Indonesian coffees have fallen out of vogue lately — along with untrendiness of blends and darker roasts. Edwin noted how he once sat at a tasting of some 300 Indonesian coffees, and the rich-bodied, vegetal earthiness ultimately made them all taste like V8 Juice after a while.
So to summarize some of our experiences at Slow Food Nation, and particularly the Taste Pavilions, we bring you an analysis we used for the last Western Regional Barista Competition (WRBC)…